The Conservative Paranoid Mind

Gun control, immigration, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and conservative paranoia. By Michael Tomasky.

Liberals and civil libertarians shouldn’t yet be saying that there’s utterly no way that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be declared an “enemy combatant.” The post-9/11 law, whatever one’s opinion of it, does say that an American citizen affiliated with al Qaeda, the Taliban, “or associated forces” engaged in hostility with the United States can be declared an enemy combatant. It doesn’t seem like he’s that, but who knows, he may shock everyone when he comes to by saying that he and his brother were precisely that.

But it isn’t liberals who are jumping the gun here. As usual, conservatives are rushing to judgment, shredding the Constitution, using the bombing as an pretext for derailing immigration reform, and generally seeking any excuse to reimpose their paranoid and authoritarian worldview, which needs fear like a vampire needs blood, on the rest of us.

The cry, which I’m sure will pick up steam this week, was led over the weekend by the usual suspects—John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and Peter King. On the basis of what evidence? On the basis of no evidence at all. They know nothing! We’re starting to piece together a portrait of these guys, although it’s more of Tamerlan than of his younger brother. It’s a grim portrait. He evidently did become a radicalized Islamist. But if he and his brother were acting alone, even if the bombing was 100 percent politically motivated, they can’t be called enemy combatants. Period.

At most, they should say: “If the facts connect him to al Qaeda or any other designated groups, then he should be declared an enemy combatant.” Some would disagree with that, but no one could really criticize that as a legitimate posture within the parameters of U.S. law. But to call Dzhokhar a “good candidate” for enemy-combatant status now, as they did, is appalling. Moreover, the Supreme Court said in the Hamdi decision that U.S. citizens who are named enemy combatants still have their due-process rights, so it’s not clear exactly what these four want to happen unless they want the Justice Department to contravene the court.

Similarly, other conservatives—especially in talk radio; notably Laura Ingraham in an endless trail of tweets—are arguing that the bombings prove that now isn’t the time to be liberalizing our immigration laws. What? These guys were 9 and 16 years old when they came here. What exact change in immigration law would “prevent” two future Tsarnaev brothers from carrying out another bombing? It’s absurd.

Funny thing, this urge to prevent. It’s awfully selective, have you noticed? Tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of minors—many of them Muslim—have immigrated legally to the United States since 1986, the last time immigration law was substantially changed. Some of them are no doubt reprobates or drunks or criminals, but surely some are cardiologists, inventors, successful capitalists, and innovative artists. But suddenly, these two guys and these two guys alone offer some kind of proof of the need to crack down, to prevent this from happening again. Meanwhile, we have a pile of dead bodies higher than the Himalayas, the vast majority of them slain by native-born Americans who can go online or to a gun show and acquire all the weaponry and ammo they please, but we can’t ever try to do anything to prevent that. The Second Amendment is inviolate. Can’t be touched or impinged upon in any way. To do that is fascism.

The common thread through all of this is the conservative need to instill and maintain a level of fear in the populace. They need to make gun owners fear that Dianne Feinstein and her SWAT team are going to come knocking on their doors, or, less amusingly, that they have to be armed to the teeth for that inevitable day when the government declares a police state. They need to whip up fear of immigrants, because unless we do, it’s going to be nothing but terrorists coming through those portals, and for good measure, because, as Ann Coulter and others have recently said, the proposed law would create millions of voting Democrats (gee, I wonder why!).

And with regard to terrorism, they need people to live in fear of the next attack, because fear makes people think about death, and thinking about death makes people more likely to endorse tough-guy, law-and-order, Constitution-shredding actions undertaken on their behalf. This is how we lived under Bush and Cheney for years. This fear is basically what enabled the Iraq War to take place. Public opinion didn’t support that war at first. But once they got the public afraid with all that false talk of mushroom clouds, the needle zoomed past 50 percent, and it was bombs away.

Conservatism, I fear (so to speak), can never be cleansed of this need to instill fear. Whether it’s of black people or of street thugs or of immigrants or of terrorists or of jackbooted government agents, it’s how the conservative mind works. I don’t even think it’s always cynical and manipulative; conservatives often do see enemies under every bed. But that doesn’t mean they’re there, and it most definitely doesn’t mean the rest of us ought to make law and policy based on their nightmares.